Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

| | General Leadership
Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

Few would argue with the importance of open and honest communication in healthy relationships. After all, it is easy to be honest when you have something nice or positive to say.

Yet when honesty involves a potentially hard-to-hear communication, many of us experience some degree of stress when either delivering or receiving it.

Some avoid these tough conversations altogether, hoping the issue just goes away. It is far too easy, not to mention enticing, to avoid a tough conversation because you fear your honesty might be hurtful or elicit a negative reaction that you would rather not confront.

Others hit the issue head-on and simply call it like they see it. Sometimes they have a positive impact — and sometimes they just cause distress. The results are unpredictable if your focus is solely on being honest.

“Honesty is the cruelest game of all, because not only can you hurt someone – and hurt them to the bone – you can feel self-righteous about it at the same time.” Dave Van Ronk

The problem with honesty is that what is honest for you as an individual is merely a personal truth. While something may be true for you, it is not necessarily THE absolute truth about a person or situation. But when you communicate in that way, believing you are right, there is only one thing the listener will hear — that someone or something is wrong or has done wrong. Once that happens, the conversation is over, even if the exchange of words continues.

I suggest honesty is NOT the best policy, because honesty is about communicating from what we see, feel, and believe; and if our considerations end there, the conversation is likely to go badly.

To communicate something difficult effectively, you must consider what might be the honest truth for another person or another group.

[Tweet “Unless you stand in the world of the listener, your honesty all too often occurs like an assault.”]

We know that intuitively, which is why we sometimes fight within ourselves so hard to refrain from being completely honest.

This doesn’t mean that honesty is not a good policy. It’s just that honesty alone is not enough to ensure honesty is always the best policy.

The key is to focus on being straight rather than just being honest. By that, I mean speaking honestly for the purpose of making a difference.

Use the 3 C’s test to determine whether your communication is straight.

Are you CLEAR?

Do you know the specific point you want to make? If you can’t articulate the point in one simple sentence, you are probably not clear enough to be heard.

Is your communication CLEAN?

There is a big difference between speaking up to make a difference and speaking out to be heard. When the purpose of communicating is all about you, chances are it is not going to be clean. Also, consider if what you are going to say is authentic for you. Be mindful of the temptation to say things you don’t really think are true just to make the other person feel comfortable. Trying to “soften the blow” usually ends up diluting the difference the communication could make.

Is your intention to CONTRIBUTE?

When you feel the need to be honest, it is important to consider the purpose. Do you want to be right or prove a point — or do you genuinely want to make a difference for the other person, a group, a situation, etc.? Do you want to improve a relationship or elevate someone’s performance? Your authentic intention matters more in ensuring a positive outcome than the elegance of your words.

Those who deliver difficult messages consistently in a way that earns respect, rather than fosters fear, are focused on something other than honesty: their primary focus is on making a difference.

The bottom line is this: if you want to communicate honestly as an act of leadership, focus on being straight first. You will not always succeed in making the intended difference. It can take a lot of courage and takes practice to master. So remember to appreciate yourself and others for every attempt, whether you succeed or fail.

I’d love to hear from you. What do you do to ensure honesty is indeed the best policy?


Image credit: geralt


Enter A Comment

Mike Henry Sr.   |   02 August 2016   |   Reply

I try to remember there are a minimum of 3 versions of every truth, my version, the other persons’ version, and the object reality. Even when I’m totally honest, it is most often only an honest representation of my own perception. And I have learned my perception can be horribly inaccurate. So I try to make sure I present “facts” as I perceive them and ask for additional information so I can perceive them differently. At my most honest, I hope I’m generally questioning and curious. I know that’s not always the case. Being honest and curious, open to new facts and understanding helps me empathize with others. And empathy – a sincere interest in understanding, appreciating and serving the other person – is the only way to deliver hard, honest information.

Susan Mazza   |   11 August 2016   |   Reply

Well said Mike! It takes a commitment to honesty, the kind of commitment you demonstrate hear for honesty yo actually make a difference. Thanks for your thoughtful response!

LYN DEW   |   14 September 2016   |   Reply

I totally agree that honesty is the way forward with most interaction with reality. When there are hidden consequences, ultimately the delivery of such messages gives the receiver of the information a false sense of security.

It may be something we do not want to hear but how we broach the subject allows for a softer acceptance.

We are all adults and have to take responsibility for our creative performances!


Susan Mazza   |   21 September 2016   |   Reply

Responsibility on both sides of the communication is certainly key to communication in a way that makes a difference. Thanks for your comment Lyn